On September 29, 2011, Building Coastal Resilience (BCR) Field Coordinator Tang Phuong Gian attended the inception workshop in Soc Trang organized by Wageningen University (WU) and Can Tho University for Production Ability for Climate Change Adaptation in Coastal Area of Mekong River, a project to explore ways to optimize the use of salt, brackish, and freshwater in the Mekong Delta. The project builds on a study called Water for Food and Ecosystems (WFE) that was funded by LNV, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality and coordinated by IUCN with technical support provided by WU’s Dr. Gerardo van Halsema, who organized this workshop. For a copy of the WFE case studies, click HERE.
Although not discussed at the workshop, this new project comes at a time when dry season water scarcity and conflict over water are growing problems in the Mekong Delta, even though total annual discharge is expected to increase as a result of global warming because of higher intensity rainfall in the wet season. Recent low dry season flows have been variously attributed to the filling up of a cascade of reservoirs on the Upper Mekong/Lancang River in China, regional droughts, and the “polderisation” of the delta that took place in the 1990s, which severely disrupted the delta’s natural hydrology in order to maximize rice production.
WU’s approach is to maximize the value of water across agricultural sectors by innovations in the use of different water types over space and time in ways that minimize waste and maximize “crop per drop”. This approach is based on a return to a more natural water flow that allows pollutants to be flushed out and fresh nutrients to be delivered across the delta.
This approach is also consistent with Room for the River, a program to address flood protection and the improvement of environmental conditions in the areas surrounding Holland’s four main rivers. The decision to work with rather than against nature was a response to flooding in 1993 and 1995 that saw over 200,000 evacuated. The current flooding in the Mekong Delta, which has seen 10,000 people evacuated and 43 dead (as of October 13), is a reminder that 100% protection is an illusion and that if dykes are built and people moved into harm’s way, disaster can result. Re-connecting the river and the floodplain will reduce the prospect of catastrophic flooding and also allow for increased cultivation and reduced salt water intrusion during the dry season.
The impacts of the polderisation of the Mekong Delta are particularly evident in the coastal provinces, which have been affected by deteriorating water quality, falling groundwater tables, and increasingly severe dry season water shortages. Sea level rise, salt water intrusion, and higher peak temperatures will amplify these problems. The project will address the effects of salt water intrusion by adapting agriculture and aquaculture systems that can cope with high salinity levels and brackish aquatic environments rather than strive for protection against salt water intrusion.